University research makes case for $5M grant

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The money that the University of Minnesota doles out each year for renewable energy research will come into question at the beginning of the new year.

University professors, researchers and graduate students gathered at the E3 conference in the McNamara Alumni Center  Monday to demonstrate the institute’s research and why that funding matters.

The state Legislature requires that Xcel Energy give about $5 million annually to the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment — a granting organization within the University’s Institute on the Environment.

John Sheehan, the director of IREE, said the funding will be up for reconsideration in the Legislature in 2012. A Republican lawmaker said some colleagues would like to see some of the money cut.

“We would very much like to see [funding] continue,” Sheehan said.

The funding agreement started in the 1990s in exchange for Xcel’s storage of nuclear waste at its Prairie Island power plant.

IREE started in 2003 to fund renewable energy research projects at the University.

President Eric Kaler spoke at the conference about the importance of the research. He mentioned the wind turbine at UMore Park that the University unveiled in late October — IREE provided part of the money.

Besides the wind turbine, the initiative has funded research on the efficiency of traffic lights, biofuels and solar energy.

The conference drew the attention of some state legislators as well.

“IREE has done a great job in terms of developing as sort of a hub of leading edge renewable energy technology research,” said Rep. Kate Knuth, DFL-New Brighton.

Knuth said she would like to see IREE continue to be funded. “Getting rid of the funding now would undermine the momentum we have,” she said.

Sheehan reinforced the sentiment when he addressed the conference: “Be patient. Long-form investments pay off.”

Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said she was disappointed more legislators weren’t at the conference.

“Science and technology are our future,” she said. “We have to see the future in order to make good decisions.”

But Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said in a phone interview that some lawmakers in the Legislature want to slow funding for renewable energy research.

“The University has done some good work on behalf of renewable energy and we need to recognize that,” said McNamara, chairman of the House committee that deals with the environment and energy.

“At the same point, we need to realize [the funding] is paid for by [Xcel’s] rate-payers, and we have to make sure if that is an appropriate way to spend rate-payers’ money.”

About 70 posters were displayed throughout the building, each detailing the various projects IREE has funded. Attendees voted on a poster that they said clarified a complex idea. David Babson, who completed his Ph.D. at Rutgers University,  researched biofuel productions for the winning poster.

 “It would be a really bad idea,” Babson said of looming cuts to IREE funding.

“The real advantage that Minnesota has is that it has a big research university with a lot of research going on,” he said. “Cutting funds for things like this, especially renewable energy … [could hinder] future economic growth.”